Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Did the Graduation Rate Really Go Up 10 Points?

My friend Carol who lives on Bainbridge Island keeps up on all the news and brings the latest to her Pasta & Politics discussion group. I'm flattered that the P&P group has decided to take a look at 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools for a future meeting.

Carol saw the recent Washington Post piece celebrating the miraculous rise in the high school graduation rate from 70% to 80%. She wrote and asked: "Is this a reflection of teaching to the test, knocking kids out before we start counting them as in? Is it really good news?"

My reply to Carol follows:
Carol, you're right to question this kind of superficial stuff. "Graduation rates" look simple, but all social indicators are very complex when you unpack them. You wouldn't expect something like "abortion rates" or "incarceration rates" to be simple, and they aren't. Neither are graduation rates.

Here's my guess as to what raised the rate from 70% to 80% in about 15 years. You have the charter school movement and the great majority of those students transferred out of tradition schools because they were failing. They found a more convivial (less demanding?) home in the charter schools and they graduated.

But the charter school movement, as big as it is (5% of the school population), is not big enough to move that indicator ten percentage points. What probably accounts for most of the rise in the graduation rate is the pressure put on schools by the "accountability movement," which is in fact coincident with the rising rate. School administrators and teachers have been increasingly pressured to "show results." State and federal sanctions and penalties were promised if the schools didn't show improved performance. The schools have responded as we all would — they gamed the system. Here's a good example. Denver North High took all the kids who flunked algebra and enrolled them in an online algebra course being piped across country by a Seattle company called APEX. This system is becoming increasingly common across the country; it's called "credit recovery." The course and the final exam were a sham, and the North High School teachers and administrators knew it. Kids got credit for the course even when they only logged on a few hours during the entire semester. And for the final exam, all the students were herded into an auditorium to take the online exam proctored by an administrator. Now the students may not have learned much algebra, but they weren't dumb. They had smart phones and knew the location of a website that solves algebra problems! Denver North's graduation rate jumped from 65% to 75% in one year! A local weekly newspaper called Westword blew the lid off the program, and the graduation rate at North quickly drifted back to 65%.

There are plenty of politicians and corporate types hanging around ready to jump on statistics like "10 percentage point gain in graduation rate" in order to take advantage of what seems like a simple victory. And there are plenty of people around willing to lay blame for bad news at the door of their competitors. But as you well know, the world is too complicated for such simple answers.

All the best to you and Jim, g~

P.S. Hope I haven't ruined your appetite for the pasta.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Neo-vouchers and Creeping-vouchers

Somehow or other the brand name of "Vouchers" got sullied and bill after bill in state legislatures has gone down to defeat. A couple places – like Milwaukee and Cleveland – managed to pull off state-supported, limited "experiments" with vouchers, with quite disappointing results for voucher advocates. But the repeated attempts to get voucher programs enacted at the state level have failed due to lack of public support. Perhaps, the specter of tax money actually going to Jewish or Muslim private schools is enough to queer the deal, though the American public has no qualms apparently about tax money going to Christian private schools.

To rescue the voucher movement from extinction, free-market partisans have had to create what Kevin Welner has called "neo-vouchers." Such things as tuition tax credits, now available in almost a dozen states, create "scholarships" that students redeem at private schools, often religious in character. Arizona – the leader in tuition tax credit programs – has also created a neo-voucher known as Empowerment Scholarships. These Empowerment Scholarships are money that the state directly deposits into bank accounts from which parents can withdraw the funds to pay private school tutition. (That parents seem to be leaving the money in the account and saving it for college tuition later on is a slight glitch in the program that he legislature will take up someday.)

Now what makes the Empowerment Scholarship neo-vocuher go down so easily when the public has repeatedly choked on bald-face vouchers is that the Empowerment Scholarships have been restricted to groups of children whose circumstances tug at your heart strings. To qualify for an Empowerment Scholarship, a child must fall into one of the following categories:

  • Identified as having a disability
  • A previous recipient of a scholarship issued pursuant to section 15‑891 or this section.
  • A child of a parent who is a member of the armed forces of the United States and who is on active duty
  • A child with a guardian who is a member of the armed forces of the United States and who is on active duty
  • A child who is a ward of the juvenile court
  • A child who achieved permanency through adoption or permanent guardianship.
With the camel's nose firmly inserted under the tent, Arizona's Republican legislators – led by the American Legislative Exchange Council no doubt – undertook in this last legislative season to expand the Empowerment Scholarship program. A house bill that would have expanded the program to any child living in a ZIP code area with significant poverty failed to make it into law. It was estimated that over a period of 5 years this particular tweaking of the program would open up its coverage to nearly half the school age population of Arizona. So back to the drawing board.

House bills 2139 and 2150 sought to expand the Empowerment Scholarship program's coverage, and they have just been signed into law by the governor. HB2139 says that any sibling of a previous or current recipient is now qualified to receive an Empowerment Scholarship. What we are observing is neo-vouchers evolving into creeping-vouchers. But HB2150 either reaches the heights of empathy or sinks to a new low in cynicism. To the qualification that a child have a parent on active duty in the armed forces is added the phrase "or a parent who was killed in the line of duty." Just try and vote against that one, dear legislator.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Young Teacher Tells Why She Said "No" to Teach For America

This anonymous teacher's explanation of why she passed on the opportunity to "teach for america" — as if only Wendy Kopp's acolytes are out there doing the truly patriotic thing — brings together more of the criticisms of TFA in one place than I have seen before.

~Gene V Glass

Nearly six years ago—during my college’s first year orientation—I set my sights on becoming an elementary school teacher. Five years ago, I attended a Teach For America (TFA) info session at my college’s library. Many people encouraged me to apply, and (at a time when getting a job is anything but guaranteed) it was tempting. My East Coast liberal arts school is a sort of powerhouse for TFA. Between 40-60 of my class’ 500 graduates went on to TFA. As a comparison, six of us graduated as credentialed K-12 teachers.

Three years ago, I wrote “Why I Won’t Teach For America”. As I complete my second year of teaching (aka the length of a TFA commitment), I firmly stand by that decision for both political and personal reasons. From my personal perspective, here’s why:

I was properly trained to teach.

Had I done TFA, I would have had five weeks of training. Instead, I had literally years. Under the guidance of a master teacher, I experienced it all. If something went wrong or I didn’t know how to respond to a situation, I had people to help me. I studying education theory and pedagogy and learned material I still use every day.

I had a strong first year.

The TFA teachers I know often say things like, “My first year was horrible, but that’s just how it is!” TFA pushes the myth that a teacher’s first year necessarily is rough. In this assumption it is implicit but ignored that the students of these first year teachers are experimented on and get a sub-par education.

Even for credentialed teachers, the first year is challenging and new. But even with that, I loved my first year. I felt prepared, had an amazing class, and was finally doing what I loved. I know I am a better teacher now than I was then, but I also believe that I gave my first students a quality education. This is not because I am inherently “better” than those who teach through TFA, but because I was given the proper training and experiences prior to having my first class.

I teach in and am dedicated to my community.

TFA has applicants rank a number of locations, and the teachers I know got placed all over the United States. Two years after their placements, many are moving back to where they are from or to where they desire to live.

I teach at a school very similar in demographics to those where TFA teachers are placed: 85%+ minority, 80%+ free or reduced lunch, majority ELL. I also teach 10 minutes from where I was born. I foresee myself saving up to buy a house and raising my family in the town. I have connections to the community, and am personally invested in its long-term strength. I feel fortunate that, after two years of teaching, I am already established in the town and not looking for a transfer.

I am a public school teacher.

Had I done TFA, I would have likely ended up in a charter school. TFA has a very close relationship with the privatization movement. In LA, 90% of TFA teachers are placed in charters. I am proud to be working in a school that is making huge gains with an “underserved” population AND is fully public. For so many reasons (way more than can fit in this post!), I am a supporter of public education.

I am a member of my school’s community, not of a “corps.”

When I entered my school at 22 years old, I was by far the youngest teacher. But I was also just that: a teacher. I quickly bonded with the other teachers, many of whom have 10 or 20+ years experience. TFA teachers often say they are “doing TFA” rather than “teaching.” Amongst the TFA teachers I know, there is close camaraderie within the corps members. They live together, party together, and support each other. While this is likely necessary because many of them are placed far from home without any support system, I feel fortunate to be a part of my school’s community, and not an organization.

Teaching is sustainable for me.

Teachers work hard.

Many TFA teachers speak of the burnout they experience. I believe the organization does this purposely: if you are only getting two years out of your teachers, you might as well work them until they can’t do it any more. Every teacher I know—student teacher, career teacher, TFA teacher—gives 110% of herself mentally and emotionally. There are countless long nights and draining days. But at the same time, I know I want to stay in teaching, and I am not doing myself or my current or future students any favors by giving up my sleep and personal life. Moreover, my colleagues are people who are balancing work and personal life (often including kids and other obligations) very well, not other sleepless 24 year olds.

I am not leaving teaching now (or likely ever!).

I know for a fact I will teach next year. While we can’t predict the future, my long-term goal is to stay a classroom teacher. This shapes so much of what I do: I have invested literally thousands of dollars into my classroom and my library, I eagerly attend professional development workshops, I reflect on my practices and preserve my best lessons, and I forge strong relationships with families in the hopes that I will someday teach their children. I firmly believe all of this makes me a better and happier teacher.

The second year TFA teachers I know are taking many different paths. A few are staying in the classroom. Many are getting recruited out of their current placement by charter chains or by TFA itself. Others are going on to graduate school or, yes, to banking.

While there is a lot of dispute over TFA’s retention rate, many state that about 50% leave after two years and 80% after three years. I could not imagine what my second year of teaching would be like if I was planning on packing it all up and moving on to my next professional adventure come June.

One of my largest critiques of TFA is that it focuses on the experiences of the teachers over that of students, and I realize I have done just that here. Still, after two years of teaching, I firmly believe that NOT “Teaching for America” was the best move for me professionally, and certainly was the best service to TFA’s supposed mission that “one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”

Gene V Glass
National Education Policy Center
Arizona State University

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Nation's Largest Virtual Charter School Provider Sued Over Stock Deals

I have made no secret here about my skepticism of full-time online education for elementary- and secondary-age students. My skepticism has done nothing to stem the on-rushing tide of virtual charters that are spreading across the nation like a bad case of impetigo. The charter school movement is so leery of having their brand besmirched that they are increasingly trying to distance themselves from the virtual charter industry. Colorado Virtual Academy was recently in such bad shape performance-wise that they revealed plans to transfer low scoring students to a sister virtual charter with a different name so as to rescue the name of Colorado Virtual Academy. So even a miserable virtual charter is attempting to distance itself from itself.

At the top of the heap of suspect virtual charter school providers sits K12 Inc. of Herndon, Virginia. K12 Inc has been run since its inception by Ron Packard, a former banker with no record of having ever managed a successful education venture. K12 Inc currently operates in more than 30 states with more than 100,000 students. Of course, enrollment figures are a moving target since the turnover in enrolled students in a particular grade can reach almost 100% in a single year.

Now a new federal lawsuit accuses the K12 Inc. of reporting overly positive public statements during 2013 and that K12 CEO Ron Packard, who resigned in January, sold millions of dollars of LRN stock just prior to the true story of K12 Inc's poor performance becoming public knowledge. Packard made almost $6.5 million in the stock deals. Later after company targets for enrollments and revenues were hugely missed, K12 Inc stock fell by almost 40%. Lawyers for K12 Inc deny very hint of wrong doing. Previously, K12 Inc had settled with a state teachers retirement system that claimed that K12 Inc had reported misleading information resulting in a large loss for the retirement system. That payout to the retirement system approached $7 million.

If Americans want public education to be privatized, then they must be prepared to deal with what occasionally happens in private companies.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

So Who Needs Teacher Training? Surely Not College Professors.

Proponents of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) hold as an article of faith that a K-12 teacher can be properly trained in five or fewer weeks. After all, doesn't Teach for America train them in that amount of time and they all do fabulously well? So media hype would have us believe. Arizona's Governor Brewer must not have drunk her portion of the Teach For America Kool-Aid because she just line-item vetoed a half million dollars out of the 2014-15 state budget that had been earmarked for TFA. Why the Arizona legislature was trying to give $500,000 to its department of education that would subsequently give it to TFA is a story for another day. Perhaps the intention was to help cover Wendy Kopp's salary, which is reported to be in the vicinity of $500,000 annually.

Charter school companies also buy into the myth that K-12 teachers need no special training; all they need is a mastery of the subject they teach. BASIS charter schools – incredibly ranked twice in the top 10 high schools in the America by US News and World Report – doesn't just ridicule "ed school trained teachers" in its sales pitches, it refers to its own teachers as "subject specialists." (More on this some day.) Surely the clearest proof that "ed school training" of teachers is not just a waste but an abomination is the fact that "teachers" at grades 13-16 (Freshmen through Senior years of college) need no training at all. They are "subject specialists" and, like BASIS instructors, that is enough.

As in so many respects, the comparison between Grade 12 and Grade 13 in the American education system can be very revealing about some policy issues. If subject specialists are effective and competent teachers at Grades 13-16 without any "ed school training" whatsoever, then why insist on "ed school training" of teachers for Grades K-12? Why? Because subject specialists at Grades 13-16 are NOT effective and competent teachers. Indeed, as a matter of probability, your chances of encountering an awful college professor are many times greater than your chances of encountering an awful K-12 "ed school trained" teacher.

A personal reflection: Though I attended elementary and secondary school starting some 70 years ago, I can scarcely recall two teachers out of about 50 whom I would regard as not competent or very ineffective – and one became my future father-in-law, I must report without prejudice. And yet, through seven years of university study and having taught for 50 years myself, I can confidently say that ineffective, untrained subject specialists were hardly rare. Indeed, the worst teaching I was ever subjected to and much of the worst teaching I have ever committed was done by college professors.

TFA & charter school teachers are not trained in ed schools.
College professors are not trained in ed schools.
Therefore, TFA & charter school teachers are as effective as college professors.
This syllogism suffers from an undistributed middle and begs the question that college subject matter specialists are good teachers. Many of them are not. Nor are many TFA and charter school subject matter specialists.
In the spirit of hard-nosed quantitative research, I just checked the student ratings of the teachers in my high school (1955-58) and the professors in my college (1958-61) and the high school teachers beat the college professors.

For more on "Myth 14.Subject matter knowledge is the most important asset a teacher can possess," see 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Who's More Productive, America's Public Schools or the CATO Institute?

Andrew Coulson is affiliated with the Koch Borthers founded CATO Institute. He never tires of trying to demonstrate that America's public schools continue to cost more year-in and year-out but they don't produce more. Richard Rothstein pretty much destroyed that argument in 1995. But Coulson persists.

Coulson's latest attempt to embarrass public education finds him graphing the rise in K-12 education spending over a 40-year span against the rise in SAT scores across the same time interval for all 50 states.

Now Coulson corrects expenditures for inflation, as he should, and further corrects the SAT trend line for variables reflecting participation rates and demographic changes. He doesn't have a measure of the percentages of children entering public education over the years who are just learning English (arguably the most important variable to control for), but let's cut him some slack. Per pupil expenditure goes up; the adjusted SAT scores don't, according to Coulson. Left unstated is the implication that CATO-backed reforms of charter schools, vouchers and every other free-enterprise reform you can think of has scientific justification.

But what about the productivity of Coulson's education policy unit at CATO? What if we graphed CATO expenditures per year against number of education policy studies coming our of CATO each year. Behold! The graph.

It looks to me like CATO is spending more and more of the Koch brothers money without getting any significant increase in the amount of policy research coming out of the think tank. Of course, I haven't adjusted the productivity measure for Number of Pages in the reports or for Number of Great Ideas coming out of the unit, but I plan to put my Fliegenbeinenzählen unit on that job soon.

Now Coulson would likely object to this kind of quantitative casuistry. "Not fair!", he might say. "You can't judge the work of me and my colleagues by such simple-minded counts." "We here at CATO do a lot more than just turn out policy research. We hold conferences. We appear on television. And some of our researchers were on maternity leave the last two years, and you haven't corrected for that."

Yes, you're correct, Mr. Coulson. I haven't taken those things into consideration. Reality actually is a lot more complicated than just throwing up a bunch of numbers and hoping that some gullible soul will believe them.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Best high schools in America? Or worst journalism in America?

Nota bene: This is not an April Fool's joke. I only wish it were.

U.S. News & World Report loves to rank everything. It sells.

Their most recent ranking of high schools shows two Arizona charter schools in the top ten in the nation: BASIS Tucson (#2) and BASIS Scottsdale (#5). As always, the back story is more interesting than the numbers.

The BASIS charter schools – about a dozen of them, mostly in Arizona but a couple outside, like in San Antonio – are the brainchild of Michael and Olga Block. Michael is a former free-market economist from the University of Arizona. BASIS schools have made their reputation by ruthless screening of all applicants to insure that no special needs or English language learners make the cut and repeated testing until the wheat is separated from the chaff. BASIS Tucson advertises itself thus: "BASIS Tucson uses an accelerated curriculum that includes Advanced Placement courses in subjects ranging from calculus to music theory."

The great irony with BASIS Scottsdale is that the Blocks first chose to create it as a private schools with tuition in the $20,000 a year range, but when only 7 students had signed up they quickly converted to a charter school to collect the guaranteed $6,000 a year from the state – quite a failure out there in the free market. As a charter school, BASIS Scottsdale has attracted a student body that is 40% Asian.

And now U.S. News & World Report crowns BASIS Tucson & BASIS Scottsdale in the top 5 high schools in the nation. One need not dig deeply to discover that the recent graduating class of Basis Tucson & BASIS Scottsdale COMBINED is 44 students! I'm not kidding, 23 and 21 students, respectively. [p.s. I rarely resort to typography in search of emphasis, but extraordinary stupidity calls for extraordinary measures.]

What in the world is U.S. News thinking of? This mindless bean counting is reaching the limits of the absurd.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.